In 1981 I joined the Peace Corps and went to live in the Third World for three years. There I saw and was horrified by abject poverty everywhere. I learned it came from the unfair international economic system – a system from which I and others in the Global North benefit at the expense of the rest of the world.
Out of that experience, I committed myself to act as a better steward of the abundant resources that come into my life in this wealthy country. And that is what I’ve done for the past 30 years.
Because I spend little on myself, I have more to share with others. Because I get by on fewer paid hours of work, I have more time to volunteer. It’s a tremendous blessing to have minimal financial needs so I can shape my work life. There are infinite ways to bring meaning to life and value to the world if you don’t need to earn much income doing it.
During the past 15 years I have been able to spend half of my professional hours working as a volunteer for causes near and dear to my heart. For six consecutive years in that period I also delighted in giving half of my small income in support of programs serving the poor.
What is the right level of expenditure on my own needs and pleasures versus the needs of the world? I struggle with this. The average worldwide per capita consumption level for a single adult (taking into consideration different costs of living) is about $10,000 per year. I can’t ignore the math: In a global economy with finite resources if I am consuming more than the average person in the world, then someone else must be consuming less than the average and less than their fair share because of me.
To tell the tough truth, any money I spend on myself is money that could have saved a life. I have heard that a mere $2 – the price of the coffee I’m sipping while I write this paragraph – could give someone in need of food one more day of life on this blessed planet, one more day of conversation and hugs with friends and family. Five hundred dollars – a couple of train trips for me to visit my family and friends – could provide a loan to a marginalized family’s micro-business in the Global South. This might, in turn, lift them entirely out of poverty and into sustainable, meaningful lives.
Or I can take my trips.
Friends have asked how I get by on so little, so I’ve gone public with my budget. In case they’re useful to others, here are my current annual expenditures (excluding business expenses and philanthropic giving):
4,800 Rent & utilities (room in a 2 bedrm apt. in high-priced CA)
400 Cell phone
1,500 Food (vegetarian, with an emphasis on good nutrition)
100 Misc household and personal items
100 Clothes (from thrift stores)
1,000 Health care & supplements (no health insurance)
850 Transportation (public transit fares & tennis shoes. No car)
400 Recreation (movies, eating out, retreats, coffee shops, etc.)
500 Travel: to see family & friends
600 Gifts consumed (items received gratis and low-income discounts)
Even though I live below the official US “poverty line” of $10,400 for a single adult, to me I live comfortably and healthfully. I don’t plan for retirement income beyond social security. Indeed, I expect to be working part-time, happily earning my keep until I can no longer physically manage a job and folks tell me I’m just getting in the way.
So, there you have it – one middle class North American’s modest effort to try and live responsibly with regards to money and consumption – in hopes of helping to build a better life for all. I believe that a just world is our destiny. Our collective hearts, yearning for planetary peace, will continue to tread in that direction, making the sacrifices one step at a time and encountering the blessings.
| West | at least 50% |
Posted on October 18th by Boris Yakubchik
Hey Rick, your willingness to live on the bare essentials is inspiring. Thank you for sharing your budget - it's very useful to have as an example of what is enough. I've long been uneasy (and thus mostly unwilling) to spend money on non-essential things because of how much I can accomplish with my donations instead.
One of the best ways to maximize one's impact through donations is by giving effectively; have you heard of GiveWell? It turns out the best organizations do as much as 1000 more good than average ones; giving $1 to the best ones is as good as giving $1,000. It's pretty awesome :)
Keep up the good work!